Hattie McDaniel: First black performer to win an Academy Award
One of the best and, despite nearly 100 film appearances, most poorly utilized actresses of the studio era was Hattie McDaniel, Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” featured player today, Aug. 20. Right now, TCM is showing Gone with the Wind (1939), the movie that earned McDaniel – as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy – the year’s history-making Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
She was the first black performer to take home an Oscar; in her (reportedly) studio-prepared Oscar acceptance speech, McDaniel hoped to “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” And in my view, she remains among the most well-deserved winners, regardless of skin color.
Hattie McDaniel movies: ‘Show Boat,’ ‘Alice Adams’
Two other movies showcasing Hattie McDaniel’s talents will follow Gone with the Wind: Show Boat and Alice Adams. Although best known as a director of atmospheric horror movies, e.g., Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, James Whale also ventured into other genres. His Show Boat (1936) is one of the better, most elaborate musicals of the 1930s; Irene Dunne is excellent (if more than a little too old) as Magnolia, but it’s Hattie McDaniel who steals the show whenever she’s on screen.
McDaniel is equally excellent in George Stevens’ small-town romantic drama Alice Adams (1935), starring Katharine Hepburn at her very best in the title role. As the maid Malena Burns, McDaniel’s scene-stealing takes place during a hilarious “fancy” dinner, during which the lower-middle-class Hepburn tries to impress her prospective beau, the wealthy playboy Fred MacMurray. In fact, Alice Adams’ dinner scene is a masterpiece of acting, directing, screenwriting, and editing. The film’s screenplay, from a novel by Booth Tarkington, was credited to Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, and Jane Murfin; editing by Jane Loring.
‘In This Our Life’: Black characters with lives of their own
TCM will be wrapping up Hattie McDaniel Day with the John Huston-directed 1942 Warner Bros. melodrama In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis as a – are you ready? – total basket case and Olivia de Havilland as her sane sister. Much like Sam Wood’s more prestigious Kings Row that same year, In This Our Life, adapted by Howard Koch from Ellen Glasgow’s novel, attempted to show that there was nothing Andy Hardy-ish about small-town American life, what with racism, borderline incest, social injustice, dysfunctional families, assorted personal psychoses, and sisters with men’s names (Stanley? Roy? WTF?).
Bette Davis didn’t like In This Our Life. Even so, both she and the movie are actually better – in a bad way (I think that would make sense to Mae West) – than one would be led to believe. Huston’s film, in fact, is notable as one of the relatively few major Hollywood productions of that era to present black characters, including Hattie McDaniel and Eddie Anderson, as people instead of caricatures. Not only that, but those are people with personal and professional lives of their own; they’re not mere satellites to the white characters. That alone makes In This Our Life a must-see.
Note: Initially, I’d suggested that In This Our Life viewers keep an eye out for several cast members from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), among them Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, who, according to various sources, can be spotted in a roadhouse scene. Now, I’ve watched In This Our Life twice without being able to catch a glimpse of the Maltese Falcon actors. I’ve always thought it was my fault for not paying enough attention, but apparently I didn’t spot them because they’re not there. See comment below. Huston’s father, however, the future Oscar winner Walter Huston, does have a Certified Cameo in In This Our Life, as the barkeeper.
Hattie McDaniel: A Credit to Her Race
As for Hattie McDaniel, whether or not her roles satisfied the politically correct demands of her era – or of the current era, for that matter – her warmth, pathos, and humor are more than enough to ensure that she bears the stamp of Major Credit to Her Race. The human race, that is.
Hattie McDaniel Oscar speech
The 1940 Academy Awards ceremony was held on Feb. 29 at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove in downtown Los Angeles. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the David O. Selznick production Gone with the Wind received eight competitive awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, the first black individual to take home an Oscar.
Fay Bainter, the previous year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Jezebel, presented the acting awards in the supporting categories – plaques, not statuettes*, back in those days. First, Thomas Mitchell was named the Best Supporting Actor winner for his performance as a drunken doctor in John Ford’s Western Stagecoach. After Mitchell finished his brief speech, Bainter introduced the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner by heralding the virtues of the United States:
I’m really especially happy that I am chosen to present this particular plaque. To me it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America; an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color. It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque, that I present the Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.
Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar speech was reportedly written by the studio – either Selznick’s or MGM. Here it is:
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.
Sobbing, McDaniel then exited the podium, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. (You can check out Hattie McDaniel accepting her Oscar on the Academy’s website.)
Hattie McDaniel: The first ‘of her race’ to receive an Oscar
At the time, Daily Variety wrote that “not only was [Hattie McDaniel] the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet.”
But Fay Bainter’s eulogizing notwithstanding, according to W. Burlette Carter’s essay “Finding the Oscar,” the Academy (and American society as a whole) still had a long way to go in terms of being “creed, race or color-” blind: McDaniel and her companion had to sit at “a small round table at a far, back end of the large banquet room, separated from all of the white guests,” including the Gone with the Wind contingent. Months earlier, Hattie McDaniel was nowhere to be seen at the Gone with the Wind premiere in Atlanta, where the local establishment, ever mindful of traditional values, apparently wasn’t all that eager to “embrace the whole of America.”
Also worth noting, in 1945, the year World War II came to an end, Hattie McDaniel and other black residents in the West Adams Heights District a.k.a. Sugar Hill, just west of downtown Los Angeles, came out victorious in another sort of war: a socially progressive one. Some of Sugar Hill’s white residents were demanding the enforcement of the area’s Whites Only zoning ordinance, but a Los Angeles Superior Judge threw the case out of court.
* In the photo, Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter are posing for photographers; the Oscar statuette they’re holding is, quite literally, decorative. McDaniel, much like Bainter the previous year, took home an Academy Award plaque, described in “Finding the Oscar” as “approximately 5 1/2 inches by 6 inches mounted on a small base, bearing a description of the award and a molded image of a miniature Oscar.” Though possible to do so after 1943, Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar plaque was never exchanged for an actual Oscar statuette.
Hattie McDaniel: Best Supporting Actress Oscar competition and missing Academy Award plaque
Besides Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind, the 1939 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees were Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights, Edna May Oliver for Drums Along the Mohawk, Maria Ouspenskaya for Love Affair, and Olivia de Havilland for Gone with the Wind. It should be noted that de Havilland, who, according to some, was not at all happy at having lost the Oscar, had much more screen time than Hattie McDaniel.
In fact, de Havilland had lobbied David O. Selznick to list her as a lead actress, alongside Vivien Leigh. Selznick, however, balked, fearing that de Havilland might steal away votes from her fellow Gone with the Wind player. In the next decade, Olivia de Havilland would receive four more Academy Award nominations, all in the Best Actress category, including two wins (To Each His Own, 1946; The Heiress, 1949).
Curiously, the whereabouts of Hattie McDaniel’s historic Academy Award are unknown. Decades ago, the Oscar plaque went missing from Washington’s Howard University, where it had been stored in accordance with McDaniel’s will. Sources differ as to when the disappearance – or misplacing – of the plaque occurred: either some time in the ’60s or as late as the early ’70s.
Hattie McDaniel movies
No matter how outstanding an actress, Hattie McDaniel would never be nominated for another Academy Award. Throughout the ’40s, she continued working as a mostly small-time featured player at various studios, supporting (i.e., usually cleaning house for) the likes of Bette Davis and Mary Astor in The Great Lie; Merle Oberon and Dennis Morgan in Affectionately Yours; Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal; Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, and Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away; Jeanne Crain in Margie; Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker in Never Say Goodbye; and Colbert and Fred MacMurray in Family Honeymoon.
Beginning in 1947, McDaniel was reportedly making $1,000 a week for using her voice on the radio comedy The Beulah Show, thus becoming the first black performer to star on a nationally broadcast radio program. In 1951, she switched to television, replacing Ethel Waters in the title role in the TV spin-off Beulah. But after a few episodes McDaniel was forced to withdraw due to ill health, getting replaced by Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life, 1934).
Hattie McDaniel: Victim of racism after death
Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer at age 60 at the Motion Picture House hospital facility in Woodland Hills, northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on October 26, 1952. In her will, she wrote: “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.” The Hollywood Cemetery, however, had other ideas, reportedly refusing to allow McDaniel to be buried there because of her skin color. She was eventually laid to rest at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery.
Nearly half a century later, in 1999 the now renamed Hollywood Forever Cemetery erected a large cenotaph in McDaniel’s honor. The Hattie McDaniel Memorial can be found on the lawn overlooking the cemetery’s lake.
Hattie McDaniel movies’ schedule on Aug. 20
3:00 AM THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943). Dir.: David Butler. Cast: Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, Eddie Cantor, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan, Dinah Shore, Alexis Smith, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Edward Everett Horton, S.Z. Sakall, Hattie McDaniel, Ruth Donnelly, Don Wilson, Spike Jones, Henry Armetta, Leah Baird, Willie Best, Monte Blue, James Burke, David Butler, Stanley Clements, William Desmond, Ralph Dunn, Frank Faylen, James Flavin, Creighton Hale, Sam Harris, Paul Harvey, Mark Hellinger, Brandon Hurst, Charles Irwin, Noble Johnson, Mike Mazurki, Fred Kelsey, Frank Mayo, Joyce Reynolds, Mary Treen, Doodles Weaver. Black and white. 127 min.
5:15 AM JANIE (1944). Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Joyce Reynolds, Robert Hutton, Edward Arnold, Ann Harding, Alan Hale, Robert Benchley, Clare Foley, Barbara Brown, Hattie McDaniel, Richard Erdman a.k.a. Dick Erdman, Jackie Moran, Ann Gillis, Russell Hicks, Ruth Tobey, Virginia Patton, Colleen Townsend, William Frambes, John Alvin, Kirk Barron, Monte Blue, Keefe Brasselle, Lane Chandler, Julie London, Virginia Sale, Andy Williams. Black and white. 102 min.
7:00 AM JANIE GETS MARRIED (1946). Dir.: Vincent Sherman. Cast: Joan Leslie, Robert Hutton, Edward Arnold, Hattie McDaniel. Black and white. 89 min.
10:00 AM THE MAD MISS MANTON (1938). Dir.: Leigh Jason. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Sam Levene, Hattie McDaniel. Black and white. 80 min.
11:30 AM THE GREAT LIE (1941). Believing her husband to be dead flyer’s wife bargains with his former love to adopt the woman’s baby. Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Mary Astor, Hattie McDaniel. Black and white. 108 min.
1:30 PM GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE (1942). Dir.: William Keighley. Cast: Jack Benny, Ann Sheridan, Charles Coburn, Percy Kilbride, Hattie McDaniel, William Tracy, Joyce Reynolds, Lee Patrick, Charles Dingle, John Emery, Douglas Croft, Harvey Stephens, Franklin Pangborn, Leon Ames, Gertrude Carr, Hank Mann, Stuart Holmes, Marie Windsor. Black and white. 91 min.
5:00 PM GONE WITH THE WIND. (1939). Dir.: Victor Fleming. Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, Barbara O’Neil, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Ona Munson, George Reeves, Jane Darwell, Fred Crane, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Oscar Polk, Everett Brown, Howard C. Hickman, Alicia Rhett, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Laura Hope Crews, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Harry Davenport, Leona Roberts, Paul Hurst, Isabel Jewell, Cammie King, Eric Linden, J.M. Kerrigan, Ward Bond, Jackie Moran, Cliff Edwards, Lillian Kemble-Cooper, Yakima Canutt, Marcella Martin, Louis Jean Heydt, Mickey Kuhn, Olin Howland, Irving Bacon, Robert Elliott, William Bakewell, Mary Anderson, John Arledge, Roscoe Ates, Ralph Brooks, Louise Carter, Gino Corrado, Yola d’Avril, Richard Farnsworth, Frank Faylen, George Hackathorne, Tommy Kelly, George Meeker, Charles Middleton, Marjorie Reynolds, Lee Phelps, Tom Tyler, Guy Wilkerson, John Wray. Black and white. 125 min.
9:00 PM SHOW BOAT (1936). Dir: James Whale. Cast: Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Queenie Smith, Sammy White, Donald Cook, Hattie McDaniel, Francis X. Mahoney, Marilyn Knowlden, Sunnie O’Dea, Arthur Hohl, Charles Middleton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clarence Muse, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Brooks Benedict, E.E. Clive, Maxine Cook, Grace Cunard, Elspeth Dudgeon, Helen Jerome Eddy, Dorothy Granger, Stanley Fields, Frank Mayo, Jack Mulhall, Barbara Pepper, Lee Phelps, George Reed, Forrest Stanley, Bobs Watson. Black and white. 114 min.
11:00 PM ALICE ADAMS (1935). Dir.: George Stevens. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Evelyn Venable, Frank Albertson, Ann Shoemaker, Charley Grapewin, Grady Sutton, Hedda Hopper, Jonathan Hale, Hattie McDaniel, Brooks Benedict. Black and white. 99 min.
1:00 AM IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942). Dir.: John Huston. Cast: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Dennis Morgan, Charles Coburn, Frank Craven, Billie Burke, Hattie McDaniel, Lee Patrick, Mary Servoss, Ernest Anderson, William B. Davidson, Edward Fielding, John Hamilton, William Forrest, Eddie Acuff, Mary Astor, Ward Bond, Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook Jr., Ruth Ford, Walter Huston, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Barton MacLane, Frank Mayo, Lee Phelps, Sam McDaniel, George Reed. Black and white. 97 min.
Hattie McDaniel movie schedule via the TCM website.
The above segment from Hattie McDaniel’s will is found on Wikipedia, which sources an Associated Press report.
Daily Variety quote re: Hattie McDaniel at the Oscars via Mason Wiley and Demian Bona’s Inside Oscar. Fay Bainter Oscar 1940 speech via the IMDb.
Photo of Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter holding an Oscar statuette: © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.